CIO Interview with Paul Coby, Persimmon Homes
"The technology... roars ahead". Join Paul Coby as he shares practical insights on technology leadership, time management and being human in this CIO interview.
Considered one of the most experienced CIOs in the UK today, Paul Coby has a penchant for unravelling the complexities of his role in the corporate world. In an interview with HotTopics, he delved into the motivations behind his plans for a new book, "50 Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Became a CIO," a treasure trove of insights drawn from his extensive experience at British Airways, John Lewis, Johnson Matthey and now Persimmon Homes, to name a few.
Watch now: CIO Interview with Paul Coby, Persimmon Homes
An introduction to Paul Coby
Through his book, Coby aims to distil the essence of his experiences for both personal reflection and as a guide for fellow C-suite technology leaders. Drawing from his experience as someone who has navigated the critical junctures of leadership in the technology realm, Coby offers a roadmap for those following a similar path.
Coby revealed his most crucial maxim for success: time management. As a CIO, where demands stream in from all corners of the company, Coby emphasised the art of decision-making in allocating time. It is not just about being busy but about being purposeful, a principle that he believes makes up the foundations of effective leadership.
Coby's reflections on the role of the CIO bring a human touch to the concept of technology leadership. Acknowledging the omnipresence of a CIO's responsibilities, he shares his attempts to find a balance, interspersing family time and non-work pursuits into the demanding schedule dictated by the fast-paced nature of the role.
From running a 24/7 support service to contemplating the possibilities of generative AI, he embodies the duality of a CIO's role—managing the present while pushing the boundaries of the future of his organisation. In his free time, his interests extend beyond the digital realm, showcasing a multifaceted individual behind the usual corporate face. “I've written a book on Roman history, Roman forts and strategy [and] I'm trying to write another one.”
How to have fun as CIO using AI
To Coby, having fun means being able to play with shiny new technologies.
The day-to-day life of a CIO involves being in charge and taking leadership of the technology function, modernising, fixing and dealing with all sorts of issues at hand. For Coby, the “fun” aspect of this involves determining how to push the boundaries of the business forward by way of applying innovative technological ideas and solutions. “Your job as CIO is to understand what it can do… one of the things that makes it really exciting is you are the interpreter–the explainer of what it can do for the business”.
With generative AI on his mind, Coby believes that technology leaders can utilise this to enhance and benefit the business. Faced with myriad of ways to use generative AI, how does Coby plan on implementing this within Persimmon Homes?
Currently running proofs of concept, Coby revealed that the company is looking at ways of using AI to visualise new houses for prospective clients. “You could actually do a little sketch of what you thought the room would look like–the AI will be able to take that and turn that into a 3D model”. Recognising the increased potential of AI in other areas of the business, Coby said that the company is also considering using this to support the team through the standardisation of building regulations, and health and safety.
While he acknowledged that others may be sceptical of using AI, Coby mentioned that these methods would be working off the company’s own data. “We can trust that… There are many upsides of generative AI and I think it will help humans perform more effectively and faster”. On the other hand, Coby emphasised the importance of keeping a human in the loop to oversee operations.
Black Friday bedlam
“If you’re not scared sometimes as CIO/IT Director, you either lack imagination or you don’t run the IT” – Paul Coby, 50 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became CIO.
Throughout his extensive career, Coby has navigated his teams through a variety of risky and tricky situations. During his time at British Airways he dealt with natural disasters such as snowstorms, volcanic eruptions and floods causing problems for the organisation’s IT systems.
The opening of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 in 2008 was described as “disastrous” and a “major embarrassment” as a result of the total collapse of the baggage system. When recalling the incident, Coby said that the team had worked hard to be ready for the opening.
What was supposed to be a smooth operation turned into the worst-case scenario. “The system couldn’t cope”. On a more positive note, he argued that this was a great example of how to manage a major issue. “My big takeaway from all of that, is that you need to test systems under realistic conditions, with real people.”
Fast-forward to two decades later, as John Lewis’ first CIO, he went into detail about how he dealt with the Black Friday incident. Picture a seamlessly managed Black Friday operation backstage at the John Lewis website, where the technical team monitors sales through informative graphs, ensuring a tranquil and efficient process.
All of a sudden, “the graphs all flatlined”. As a result of an unanticipated DDoS attack, the website was taken offline in the middle of their Black Friday midnight sale. Fortunately for John Lewis, their IT operations team, led by Coby, were able to divert and block the malicious traffic, getting the site back up and running within minutes. “I think that's a wonderful example of why deep technology skills matter.”
50 Things–the key takeaways
Paul Coby has had a lot of time to consider how to re-launch his book: 50 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became CIO.
After publishing the first volume in 2011, he kept in mind that thought leadership and insights are being consumed differently. The end result? He has decided to unpack his thoughts and insights in a weekly blog, hand-picking which maxim he would like to discuss each time.
Here are some of the key takeaways Coby expects leaders to keep in mind when taking in insights from 50 Things:
- Lock into the strategy of the business;
- If you want to transform your business – you can’t do it on your own;
- Try to be human;
- Connectivity has got to work;
- Remember that all parts of technology work - it’s a team sport and celebrate that.
“As CIO, you're working with all parts of the company, you're on everybody's critical path. Everybody needs you to do something, whether that's your colleagues or whether it's people who you work with, but you have to really decide what matters”.
Quick fire Q&A
- What was your dream job growing up? Be a historian - yes, really!
- What keeps you up at night? Worrying about that overnight system change
- What excites you about the next 12 months? Making IT the critical enabler
- What do you do outside of work? Grandfather, Roman history, WOMAD, travel.
- What is the best advice you have ever received? Be what you aspire to!
CIO interview: Check out our line-up of HotTopics Leader's Corner and Profile Interviews.
HotTopics produces interviews with a diverse array of leaders, C-suite marketing and technology leaders. These take place in-person during our much-anticipated flagship event, The Studio, and virtually with leaders based all over the world. Learn more about what makes these leaders tick, and their experiences and expertise that have supported them in their careers so far.
Join the community
To join the HotTopics Community and gain access to our exclusive content, events and networking opportunities simply fill in the form below.